The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Saturday claimed credit for a suicide car bombing that took at least four lives and wounded dozens in a Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut Thursday, marking the first attack by the group in Lebanon.
If ISIS’s claim is accurate, the operation would indicate that the al Qaida affiliate has infiltrated a third Middle Eastern country even as it faces challenges to its control of parts of northern Syria and portions of Iraq’s Anbar province.
“Clearly, al Qaida in Iraq wasn’t kidding when it changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser and expert on militant Islam. “The breadth of its current operations reflects its ambition to establish a caliphate controlling the entire Levant.”
But the group also risks “spreading itself too thin and making too many enemies,” he added.
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On Saturday, ISIS forces remained in control of the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, which they’d captured on Friday. But they were fighting to maintain control of major outposts in northern Syria, where they faced a fierce offensive from Syrian rebels who once had viewed the group as an ally in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad.
Fierce fighting between ISIS and Syrian rebel groups was reported in a dozen locations, with rebel spokesmen claiming that ISIS had been ejected from at least eight towns and villages in Idlib province and from the town of Atarib in Aleppo province. Rebels also reported they had recaptured the border crossing with Turkey at Bab al Hawa. Multiple reports from rebel activists said that anti-ISIS fighters were arresting family members of the al Qaida group.
ISIS, however, had repulsed a rebel push in Kafr Zeta in Hama province, according to reports, and remained in control of the strategic Idlib province town of Saraqeb, which sits astride the Aleppo to Damascus highway.
ISIS fighters also reportedly executed dozens of people as they fled the town of Harem ahead of rebel attackers, and had ordered up reinforcements from their forces in Raqqa. They also threatened via Twitter to withdraw from the frontlines inside the city of Aleppo – a step, they said, would make it possible for pro-Assad forces to recapture that key northern city.
In Iraq, the group reportedly resisted assaults by both Iraqi government forces and local tribal leaders Friday night and Saturday to maintain control of all of Fallujah and perhaps as much as half of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
"Fallujah is under the control of ISIS," the French news agency AFP quoted a senior security official in Anbar as having said on Saturday. AFP reported at least 65 people died Saturday in Iraqi fighting.
The incidents in three counties highlighted the group’s growing regional influence. But it was difficult to know whether the group’s activities in widely separate areas were coordinated. One analyst said that the group’s actions were likely to be dictated by the vastly different issues it faces in each place.
“While ISIS is operating in three countries, each has to be separated by local context,” said Aaron Zelin, a blogger and researcher on jihadist groups for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “In each country, ISIS has differing strengths and weaknesses.”
Al Qaida in Iraq fought pitched battles against U.S. forces in that country that claimed hundreds of American lives, and the U.S. campaign to force it from Fallujah in 2004 is considered the bloodiest single battle of the Iraq war. Its resurgence in Anbar is tied to Iraq’s internal political rivalries that pit the Sunni Muslim residents of Anbar against the predominately Shiite Muslim government of Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki in Baghdad.
The group has been active in Syria’s conflict since the early days of 2012, and is thought responsible for the establishment of the Nusra Front, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has played a critical role in rebel military successes over the past two years.
In April, al Qaida in Iraq announced that it was changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and that Nusra would become part of it. But Nusra’s leaders objected, and the two groups have remained separate, though allied.
ISIS’s statement on the Lebanon blast warned that the bombing was the start of a campaign against the Lebanese group Hezbollah for its military role in helping the Syrian regime survive the three-year civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 130,000 people.
The statement called the bombing “a first small payment from the heavy account that is awaiting those wicked criminals."
Lebanon has been roiled by tensions and clashes over both Hezbollah’s strong military support for Assad and by a number of Sunni communities that have sent material support and men to fight alongside the rebels. Car bombings, rocket attacks and even kidnappings have targeted both communities and incidents have begun occurring with more frequency, casting doubt on Lebanon’s fragile stability.
Al Qaida-related militants have long sheltered in Lebanon. The founder of al Qaida in Iraq, a Jordanian militant named Abu Musab Zarqawi, is believed to have spent time here before he moved to Iraq in response to the U.S. invasion there.
The Saudi citizen who was said to be the head of another al Qaida affiliate, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed responsibility for November’s suicide bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, is believed to have lived in the Ain el Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon before he was captured by Lebanese authorities in December.
Lebanese authorities, who only acknowledged they were holding Majid al Majid last week, announced Saturday that he had died in custody. Details were scarce as Majid, who had been designated a terrorist by the United States in 2012, had been held and interrogated in a “secret location,” according to Lebanese authorities, who claimed Majid had suffered from a severe kidney ailment that required periodic dialysis. The statement from the Lebanese prosecutor investigating the embassy bombing said that these health issues were to blame for his death.
Meanwhile, the identity of the Lebanese man thought responsible for Thursday’s car bombing in southern Beirut provided more indications of the cross-border links. Lebanese authorities announced that DNA tests confirmed that the bomber was Qutaiba al Satem, a 20-year-old man from the Wadi Khaled region of northern Lebanon, a bastion of support for the Syrian rebellion.
A local news outlet reported that al Satem had left Lebanon to fight alongside Syrian rebels in the Syrian border town of Yabrud, which is currently held by the rebels despite an ongoing offensive by the Syrian army and its allies Iran and Hezbollah.
Investigators are trying to piece together al Satem’s activity in recent months and are examining his phone records to determine who he had been in contact with in the weeks leading up to the deadly bombing, according to the report.